Nuclear Fallout: How Parents’ Fights Affect Kids
Few parents want to fight in front of their child, but because conflict is a normal part of any relationship, it can be hard to shield kids from every spat.
That’s alright, as long as parents handle disagreements in a constructive way, said University of Arizona researcher Olena Kopystynska. In a recent study, Kopystynska’s team found that when even one parent handles fights with a partner destructively, it can have an effect on the child, leaving him less emotionally secure about his home life.
“Children are very good at picking up on little nuances of how parents interact with each other, so it really matters how parents express and manage their daily life challenges because that determines children’s confidence in the stability and safety of their family,” Kopystynska said. “If parents are hostile toward each other, even children as young as 3 years old may be threatened that their family may be headed toward dissolution. They may not necessarily be able to express their insecurities verbally, but they can feel it.”
The researchers began by identifying two parental fighting styles: constructive versus destructive. Constructive conflict management involves calmness and respect, despite a difference in opinion; the conflict stays focused on one topic, and the couple progresses toward a resolution. When conflict is handled destructively, it is driven by anger and resentment, and the argument often strays off topic to events from the past.
Kopystynska’s team then examined American data on low-income families — a population that could be at high risk for conflict, given the many stressors associated with financial strife. Parents in the study were mostly unmarried and had children who were roughly 3 years old. Mothers and (for the first time) fathers were both surveyed about their perceptions of their conflict management behaviors with each other, and how their children react emotionally when they witness their parents fighting.
Four different profiles of couples emerged: couples in which both partners handled conflict constructively; couples in which both partners handled conflict destructively; couples in which the mother was more constructive and the father more destructive; and couples in which the father was more constructive and the mother more destructive.
The researchers then looked at the parenting styles of each individual, measuring through direct observations of parent-child interactions supportive behaviors, such as making positive statements, being sensitive to the child’s needs and engaging the child in cognitively stimulating ways, and harsh parenting behaviors, such as forceful or intrusive behaviors or expressions of anger and dissatisfaction toward the child.
Researchers found that fathers interacted similarly with their children, regardless of their fighting style with their partner. But mothers who handled conflict destructively in relationships with fathers who handled conflict constructively, tended to be harsher with their children than mothers who, with their partners, both handled conflict constructively.
As far as the effect on a child’s emotional security, researchers found that children of one parent who handles conflict destructively and another who fights constructively, felt the least emotionally secure.
“What we found is that when parents are using constructive conflict management, the children feel less insecure about their family climate, and when at least one parent argues destructively, there are some levels of insecurity about the family relationships,” Kopystynska said.
Worth noting, Kopystynska said, is that despite a common misconception that low-income families are at risk for dysfunctional behaviors, very few couples in the study were entirely destructive in their fighting styles. In fact, only 3% of couples in the sample included two partners who handled conflict destructively, suggesting that most couples in the sample participated in at least some healthy conflict behaviors.
Surprisingly, children of the destructive-destructive fighting couples reported the highest emotional security, but Kopystynska posits that’s because the couples in question may have broken up and physically separated, so their children were less directly exposed to parents’ interactions.
“Not all conflict is bad — it’s about how you manage it,” Kopystynska concluded. “Given that children are going to encounter conflict out there in the real world, exposure to some conflict can be beneficial. However, it’s really how parents handle that conflict that sets the tone for how safe children feel, and may further promote similar conflict management behaviors for when children are confronted with conflict of their own.”
The study was published in the Journal of Family Psychology.